My First Antarctic Winter/Over, McMurdo, AQ




Today is Friday, 1 April. I've been out to Black Island since Tuesday last. The trip actually started the Saturday before that when Jill—she is the Search and Rescue (SAR) person who was my co-leader—and I started loading the two vehicles we would use. 071 is a TUCKER SNOCAT made in Logan Utah. It has four tracks and drives like a car. 1624 is a NODWELL made in Calgary Alberta. It has two tracks, like the one that Kenny drives, but is bigger. Kenny could park his machine on the back deck of this one. The NODWELL has seats for four and is old and dirty. It carried two drums of extra fuel, a couple of generators and 500 flags to mark the trail. Red, for the right side of the trail going home (red-right-returning); green for the other side; black for crevasse, don’t go here; yellow for pee here.

On Saturday it became apparent that neither vehicle had a radio. They had been removed for the winter and it was too late to do anything about it that day. By Monday afternoon radios were installed and checked and the vehicles were packed and ready to go. Dale, the mechanic, would drive 071.

The NODWELL is a noisome experience. I drove it most of the way out by the front route. The drivers door latch is no good. The door must be held closed with a shock-cord. The foot-throttle requires the weight of an elephant to hold it down and there is no adequate hand throttle. A just right block of wood was provided by Dale. The left side windscreen wiper blade is too long and the defroster is inadequate to keep the window clear. There is not an ICE-SCRAPER to be had in all of MacTown. The fuel gauge is no good; it sticks at full till it drops to 1/4. The NODWELL has no traction on ice, doesn't take much of a cross wind to set it drifting and climbing up or down on an icy surface is hazardous. It also pulls to the left. I will say that it can carry a lot of cargo but it is cold and loud.

The front route was fairly easy to find but of course we had excellent weather. Parts of the front route still need to be flagged and a way around the lake should be surveyed if necessary. I followed the short-cut made by the last SAR group that went up from the lake to the site. With some adjustments it could be useful. Very dusty but it cuts off about thirty minutes of travel on ice.

When we arrived at the site the outside temp was about plus 4F and the wind as reported from MACWX was 60kts. After a little difficulty getting the Preways started we unloaded the vehicles, put in a couple of hours cleaning out old canned foods, and settled in for the night. The previous group had shut off the DFA outside at the tank, something I had never been shown and neither I nor Lyle thought of until we had tried several other things. Interesting to note though, this same group left the propane turned on. Jill made dehyd stew with mystery meat for supper.

Wednesday, after breakfast of scrambled eggs (I cooked), Lyle and I went about our various tasks; everyone else went off to explore and flag and didn't come back till supper. We had steaks and veggies and pasta and beer. The weather turned bad Wednesday night. It didn't get cold but winds up to 90 or so made for a nightmarish sleep. My bed was jumping up and down and the tent material of the Jamesway was flapping and the Preway was rattling and puffing and the windmill was screeching.

Let me see if I can draw you a pictograph of a Jamesway:

______________________________    r

| |x|__| food shelf  |_|M| |O|   o

|       -------------|f|B| |B|  o

|0                   | |_| |_|_d

|                       _   _ __|

|                      |O| |O|

| |P|  | table |  |P|  |B| |B| head-->


x=stove, 0=propane, P=Preway, MB= my bunk

This Jamesway is 16 feet wide by 32 feet long and tied down with a guy line every four feet along the sides and has a plywood floor. Snow blows in at every crack you can find and even a few you can't imagine.

Thursday morning started out with a bang when part of the stove pipe fell off one of the Preways. The wind had twisted the upper section around and torn the vent section and the joint between the two was open. Emergency tin can surgery was effected to get it together but next trip out should bring some new pipe. There was considerable discussion over the pancake and artificial maple syrup breakfast about leaving late in the morning since the weather was not so good and forecast to get worse. We still had several things on the list to do but none were all that important. Although the decision was made to stay the matter was really put to rest when we could not get the NODWELL started nor the Herman-Nelson. (The H-N is a sort of big outdoor furnace that could warm up a playground and is used to preheat the diesel engines.) By the time these problems were resolved it was too late for the desired daylight trip to be completed. I went back to further odds and ends in the radio room, Jill led several forays into the pile of frozen, bulging canned goods and Dale and Lyle rearranged the vehicles and fuel tanks in order leave them running all night this time.

After supper, Joe cooked pasta again, I think that is the only thing he knows; the call to MCMWX brought news of worse weather to come. We might be stuck for two-three days. Our plan had been to leave after an early breakfast Friday and flag our way back but this forecast changed all that and we opted to leave within the hour. After several calls we were underway. The route out the back way was in much better shape than last time a few weeks ago and except for a couple of brief instances of poor visibility when the tracks stirred up a lot of snow the trip was smooth and faster than expected.

I drove the TUCKER part way back and except that it is small, crowded, and tipsy it is the quietest of the snow-tracked vehicles in my experience. That will be my choice for next trip even if we have to pull a sledge for the extra fuel.

Got back at 0500 Friday morning after an all night race with bad weather that was forecast to keep us there for three days if we didn't get out ahead of it. Great timing! Getting away for a weekend of camping out is hard to do here.

Of course the bad weather never happened and Saturday afternoon was a good day for a picnic. Company Picnic. It was held in the Heavy Shop. A five and a half million dollar new garage, big enough to play soccer in. Another Saturday thing was the painting of Easter Eggs. Well vacation is over... back to work Monday mourning.

This past week has been both fast and slow. I now have the shortwave connected to the local FM radio station so that the baseball games from stateside can be retransmitted here. That was my big accomplishment for the week. The sun is setting faster and earlier every day it seems. And rising later too.

The Greenpeace people are visiting in town again. They are maintaining a base over on Cape Evans about twenty-five miles away and three of them skied over to the transition near Scott Base where they have a tomato hut and supply shed. They come around to visit, conduct interviews, and spread a kind of gospel that puts them somewhat at odds with NSF and consequently with the Navy and ANS. Things are somewhat better now than they were this summer. We were putting our jobs at risk to even talk to them then but now its different. Tonight I and Jill and Eva and Alistair walked over to have cookies and schnapps with them whilst at the same time one of them, Keith, who use to work for ANS, was over here visiting. Interesting people and certainly I feel they have a lot more dedication for their job than any of the people I work with/for. They are sort of like some of the early explorers of this continent: up against nearly insurmountable odds plus working from the underdog position. Though they do have a lot of hi-tech equipment (some of their communications gear can run circles around what I work with) and they also enjoy a large, though still minority, world-wide support.

The last SUNSET has happened and tonight is the Last Sunset Party at Scott Base. Tomorrow the Swim Team meets. The Boston Brownies have it easy compared to these guys: they get to wear swimsuits.

This Sunset Swim is said to be an S&M party. The sadists stand around and watch whilst the masochists go jump in the lake. More precisely, the ocean. The lifeguards take a chainsaw and cut a hole in the two foot thick sea ice then the initiates (they're the ones who are doing this for the first time) and the crazies (seconds anyone?) strip and tie a rope around their middle (that's in case the thermal schlock should render you senseless) and jump in. Watch out for starving leopard seals, eh. Some say the water is warm! And at 25 degrees it might well be warm compared to standing around on the ice at -20. I'll take their word for it.

The swim team photo published in the annual Cruise Book always blacks out certain parts of the anatomy in order to protect the identity of its members.

The lettuce is gone and I haven't seen an apple for a week now. I only just the other day realised, after several unfulfilled explorations of the local walk-in, the thing I was really looking for was something with crunch to it. We are counting the days to resupply. They say a man will do strange things for even a little head of lettuce.

Today is Wednesday and I have given up the idea of EMAIL. After about 600 dollars in phone bills and only a bruised wallet to show for it I have called it off. The experiment taught me a lot about computers and communications and politics and my Self. My small LAP-TOP while it is simple and straight forward, easy to use and carry, and in fact does the communications with grace and elegance, if such could be said of a machine, just does not have enough memory to handle the long files these letters and stories make. The mailbox back in the states with its arcanum of rules and commands didn't help matters. But the worst was the phone bill. Had I been able to move the twenty or so pages in the five minutes I’d planned on it would have worked but there are so many pit-falls and blind alleys that I spent thirty minutes and then was not sure the text had made it to the mailbox. There are better ways but they are held in secret by those who would make a profit or they are not used because everyone thinks their idea is the best so few computers or systems can talk readily to one another.

A good warrior knows when to retreat; my tools for EMAIL are inadequate and my disposition suffers from the frustration. Many of the very things I came here to run away from I have been struggling to stay in touch with. It has been said that if one cannot go four months without a letter from home then perhaps one should not be here for the winter. Perhaps they are right. I will try harder. There is always MARS and the HAM radio if I get desperate and next time I will be either stronger or better prepared, perhaps both.


This letter is COPYRIGHT by Alfred J. Oxton, 1988-2009, McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica.

No portion may be reproduced by any means without my express written permission.

 A.J.Oxton, OA, OO, OAE,  k1oIq

Evil Al The Network NARC

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